Residents, business owners question ‘Operation Nightlife’

One week ago, Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s biggest talking point was “Operation Nightlife.” Now, city officials are under fire for following through on that very plan.

A week after a press conference at which DeStefano pledged to reduce nightclub presence downtown, police are facing criticism for their behavior during a raid on Morse-Stiles Screw at Elevate Lounge. The club’s attorney called the raid the worst abuse of police power he’s seen since he began representing the club 15 years ago, and Yale administrators are urging student witnesses to help them collect complaints to submit to the New Haven Police Department.

To assuage community anxiety over the alleged police brutality, city leaders held a summit Tuesday evening at the Omni Hotel that drew a crowd of around 60. Students, nightclub owners and New Haven residents attended the meeting, formally titled “Downtown New Haven Quality of Life and Security Summit.” The five-member panel, which included Ward 7 alderwoman Frances “Bitsie” Clark and Robert Smuts, New Haven’s chief administrative officer, listened and responded to community complaints. They drew no definite conclusions except that, for “Operation Nightlife” to be a success, city officials, police, students and community members must stay in constant dialogue in the coming weeks.

Achieving this goal could be tough, as tensions continue to run high within the community. Business owners at the meeting raised concerns about the ramifications “Operation Nightlife” could have for their establishments. Ronald LoRicco, owner of LoRicco Properties and a lawyer whose offices are located on Crown St., and Rob Bartolomeo, the owner of Gotham Citi Cafe, said they both worried “Operation Nightlife” was more an attack on their businesses than a cooperative effort to make downtown safe.

Since he first announced the operation last month, DeStefano has listed curbing the violence that begins inside clubs as a top goal. But Bartolomeo said at the meeting that it is unfair to hold clubs directly accountable for what happens when patrons leave their doors.

In an interview after the summit, Smuts said that the city could drive some clubs out of business if they are uncooperative. But only those which provide an unsafe environment for their patrons are at risk, he said, and as long as clubs comply with safety regulations, the city is happy to have them as part of its “vibrant” nightlife.

During the panel, Clark said there was no question that underage drinking was a part of the problem plaguing downtown clubs. She called the Saturday morning Elevate raid an “overreaction,” but she added that the experience creates an opportunity to determine what is appropriate behavior for club patrons and police officers.

“The events in the past two weeks have been a wake-up call,” Clark said.

DeStefano said in an interview Tuesday that Saturday’s raid did not target Yale students. It was “Alchemy’s turn [that night],” he said, refuting claims that the raid had been triggered by a tip that underage drinking would be occurring at the club that night. But John Carta, the attorney representing Elevate’s parent company, Alchemy, said the raid was the club’s third in the past two weekends. Such frequency raises questions about whether the city really does support its entertainment district, he said.

“It’s a logical inference to draw that maybe they’re using the overkill approach to scare people,” Carta said. “And it’s working.”

As evidence, he pointed to the cancellation of Saybrook Screw, originally to be held at Elevate this Friday but now to be held in the Saybrook dining hall this November.

Not even Toad’s Place has been immune from “Operation Nightlife” — the weekly Saturday night dance party at the New Haven standby was raided by NHPD officers early Sunday morning. However, Toad’s owner Brian Phelps said the police’s behavior during the hour-long raid was “civil.”

The NHPD has launched a formal investigation into its officers’ conduct at the raid, which over the coming weeks and months will see members of their Internal Affairs unit visit campus to gather eyewitness accounts. From there, DeStefano said, the scope of the investigation will depend in large part on how many formal complaints the police department receives. One hundred complaints, he said, will merit a much more thorough investigation than will 15 complaints.

Five students were arrested at the Elevate raid. One, the student who was tasered, was taken to Yale-New Haven Hospital before going to jail. The other two spent the night in jail. All five were released by Saturday evening.

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